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Mayor Breed promised to bring tough love to the troubled Tenderloin. Did she deliver? – San Francisco Chronicle

Four months after Mayor London Breed pledged in an unscripted moment to “be more aggressive with law enforcement” and less “tolerant of all the bulls— that has destroyed our city” while promising to fight crime and clean up the Tenderloin, the neighborhood remains in dire need of help.
Looking back, Breed says, “I meant everything.” But in her bid to find a commanding middle ground in a divided city — between progressives pushing for equity and social services and centrist Democrats who see the city as dangerously permissive — she has struggled to meaningfully resolve problems that confounded her predecessors.
Breed’s mid-December declaration of an emergency in the centrally located Tenderloin amid an epidemic of fatal drug overdoses and spreading tent encampments was welcomed by some advocates, neighborhood residents and businesses. At the same time, her threat to arrest drug users who refused intervention prompted accusations that she was criminalizing addiction.
Yet for all of the bitter back and forth, the feared crackdown by Breed has consisted primarily of trying — through street outreach and the opening of a linkage center — to usher people suffering from crippling addiction into aid programs. Many people have not yet pursued help and some who asked for a bed or treatment were first put on a waiting list.
Supervisor Aaron Peskin said he believed Breed was sincere in pronouncing that open-air drug users would be offered a choice between services and jail, but said, “She doesn’t necessarily know how to push the levers to make those promises come true.”
Breed said problems in the Tenderloin are “not just going to all of a sudden disappear” — that the emergency declaration was only the start of long-term efforts, and that helping people takes time. She said a pandemic surge that hit her workforce slowed her efforts and the Police Department is understaffed, which hindered stepping up enforcement. But she pointed to the success of quickly hiring health workers and that hundreds of homeless people were moved indoors.
Critics say Breed’s hard-line statements were mere posturing in response to political pressure amid a re-election campaign. But she contends her views on public safety have been consistent. In an interview with The Chronicle, she said her moves in the Tenderloin reflected her concern about overdose deaths, frustration with crime and street conditions in a neighborhood with many families, and her belief in balancing on-the-ground deterrence policing with efforts at broader systemic change.
“We can have reforms,” Breed said in her City Hall office, which overlooks a city-sanctioned tent encampment. “We can provide people with second chances. We can make sure that we provide alternatives so that people aren’t out here committing these crimes in the first place. But when the lines are crossed, there has to be consequences.”
For people using drugs on the streets, she said the “ultimate goal” is social workers, not police, persuading people to seek help, but “we need to use every tool within our disposal to get that person into treatment.”
The mayor, widely lauded for the city’s successful COVID-19 response, has walked a tightrope on public safety. Amid a nationwide police reform movement, she has added alternatives to police as well as more housing, mental health and drug treatment.
With the emergency, though, she set herself to the right of the city’s progressives, tapping into exasperation about crime and street conditions at a time when voters are considering whether to recall the city’s reform-driven district attorney, Chesa Boudin, in the June election. If Boudin is ousted, Breed will appoint his replacement.

Fire Chief Jeanine Nicholson (left), Mayor London Breed and Police Chief Bill Scott discusses safety efforts in December.
Breed, who kicked off her re-election campaign a week before declaring the Tenderloin emergency, is among Democratic leaders juggling how to respond to the demand for better and less abusive policing and more productive intervention into the crises of homelessness, mental illness and addiction.
In Breed’s view, policing can make cities safer, but she also backs reforms meant to reduce racial bias and remove cops from calls that may be better handled by unarmed aid workers. While she spoke of arresting drug users, she supports the creation of a supervised drug-consumption site that could reduce fatal overdoses.
She’s also been a proponent of conservatorship — court-mandated treatment for people with severe mental illness or addiction who are too sick to care for themselves. She’s expressed frustration that the city can’t compel more people into treatment and has pushed for broader conservatorship laws at the state level.
Multiple people who’ve known Breed for years, including former Supervisor Jane Kim, who lost to Breed in the 2018 mayoral election, said Breed has long been genuinely concerned about the Tenderloin, frustrated at conditions and consistent on the role of police.
But critics, including Hillary Ronen, a progressive supervisor who has worked with Breed to improve mental health services and drug treatment, have been disappointed to see the mayor turn to tough-on-crime rhetoric.
“It’s the default political position to take when we have a raging homelessness and overdose crisis in our streets,” said Ronen, who believes the city should focus on policing alternatives for drug users.
Del Seymour, a Tenderloin community leader who knows and admires Breed, said her “threat to increase policing” aimed to appease constituents alarmed about crime, but was the wrong approach.
“She’s been a much more liberal mayor than some of her critics have given her credit for, but she may be too progressive” for some of her critics.
Ronen, Seymour and other critics have also pointed out that the city doesn’t have enough permanent supportive housing or behavioral health beds for those who want to come inside or seek treatment. Adding more police and arresting more people won’t change that reality, they argue.
Despite some pushback, Breed has become more vocal over the last two years about the police force’s role in helping to solve the city’s most stubborn problems.
In 2020, she oversaw the rollout of a team of mental health workers to respond to people in crisis on the streets instead of police, and in the wake of the May 2020 police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the mayor redirected some law enforcement funding to support Black community organizations.
But the next year brought more visible street homelessness, another surge in overdose deaths from fentanyl and other drugs, the financial pressure of a struggling downtown and viral videos of thefts that helped fuel the Boudin recall. Breed deployed more officers in response to attacks on Asian Americans and robberies from luxury stores around Union Square.
In responding to public safety fears and pushing for societal change, Breed is trying a “delicate high wire balancing act where the potential to fall is great,” said Sonoma State University political science Professor David McCuan, “however the potential to become a poster child for practical progressivism is also there.”
Voters could hold Breed accountable if she fails to improve street conditions — although no one has identified a strong challenger in her re-election.
San Francisco first responders have struggled with medical emergencies in the Tenderloin.
Breed told The Chronicle that critiques that she has pivoted on policing are unfair. She grew up in Western Addition public housing amid pervasive poverty and violence. Her brother, who struggled with addiction, is incarcerated. Her sister died of an overdose. As a community leader and city supervisor, she said, she worked to heal police and community relations and hold perpetrators of gun violence accountable.
Breed said the city can reform the police so “all communities feel protected” and “make sure that you address crime because no one wants to be a victim of violent crime. … We have to strike a balance.”
While Breed’s critics suggest she’s been swayed by conservative interests, political consultant David Ho, who worked for an independent campaign supporting Breed’s 2018 run for mayor, said she doesn’t “listen to anybody but herself.”
“She’s been a much more liberal mayor than some of her critics have given her credit for,” he said, “but she may be too progressive” for some of her critics.
Political consultant Jim Ross, who worked for an independent campaign supporting Kim in 2018, noted that the mayor has become “more outspoken” about crime as the political debate has intensified.
Overall violent crime has fallen for decades in San Francisco and is lower than it was in 2018, though homicides and shootings have increased since then. Reports of property crimes have generally gone down in recent years but remain at high levels compared to other big cities. Polls show, though, that voters feel the city is less safe.
“Anybody in the public space has evolved on those issues simply because the issues have evolved on their own,” Ross said. “Mayor Breed has a really remarkable skill to express what the mainstream in San Francisco wants to hear in a very dramatic way.”

S.F. Mayor London Breed discusses the city budget with staff, including Andrea Bruss (center).
Breed, in her interview, acknowledged that police officers were not increased in the Tenderloin until the week the emergency ended. The mayor has said she believes the force is understaffed and that, along with a pandemic surge, is what caused the delay. As of this month, the Police Department said it employs 1,723 sworn officers — 459 fewer than the 2,182 recommended by a department-commissioned consultant in 2020.
In 2019, the latest year with data that is comparable across cities, the FBI found that San Francisco had 26 sworn police officers per 10,000 residents, which is more than any other California city with at least 100,000 residents.
In December, when the mayor made the emergency declaration, extra cops were already deployed in and around Union Square.
Asked if officers had arrested any street drug users who refused treatment services, Breed said the “primary focus” of police has been arresting drug dealers and seizing drugs and weapons.
Police officers seized more fentanyl in the Tenderloin during the emergency declaration, compared with the same period a year earlier. But while drug arrests went up compared to the prior three months, they were down from the same time last year.
Police did issue more criminal citations for drug possession — 12 as opposed to five — during the first half of the emergency compared with last year. Data for the second half wasn’t available. A person who is cited on suspicion of a crime is not booked into jail but is told to show up in court.
Some in the Tenderloin have noticed a difference and say the streets are cleaner and safer after the emergency order. Rene Colorado, a decade-long resident who runs the neighborhood business association, said he has “never seen progress like this” and credited police foot patrols and community ambassadors with deterring drug dealing.
But others such as Aref Elgaali, a Tenderloin restaurant owner who supported the mayor and her push for more policing, haven’t seen much change. The city has mostly moved homeless people around, he said, but hasn’t curbed drug activity and violence.
“Politicians are always saying the same thing that everybody wants,” he said.
While lack of significant enforcement against people who use drugs on the streets assuaged some of Breed’s critics, it frustrated some residents. The mismatch between what Breed had said and the reality on the ground “runs the risk of being seen as a failure” in governance, McCuan said.
The emergency initiative has failed to get many into treatment voluntarily. Reports show outreach teams transported or placed three dozen people from the streets to the hospital, mental health or addiction treatment, or a sobering center where people can rest while inebriated. Just 34 people who came to the linkage center — out of more than 28,900 daily guests, which includes those who returned — were placed into mental health or drug treatment or received medication or counseling.
The vast majority of requests at the center were for food, showers or other basic services.
The city was able to quickly hire more than 200 health workers. Far more homeless people — more than 600 — ended up in shelters or housing due to outreach efforts, out of a homeless population of at least 8,000, according to the most recent count in 2019.
Asked about the struggle to connect people to long-term services through the linkage center, which was managed by her health and emergency management departments — and how she would hold staff accountable for the results — Breed said she is “really proud” of the work done there.
“For those people that we were able to help, it’s all the difference,” Breed said. “Just because we’re there to help doesn’t mean that someone’s going to instantly accept what we’re offering. … These problems in the Tenderloin have existed since before I was even born.”
Though the emergency order expired, Breed emphasized that the initiatives it started, including the linkage center, have continued. While some people in the neighborhood want to see more results, she said, “They are glad that attention is finally being paid to their community.”
As for the continued presence of drug dealers on many Tenderloin blocks, Breed said police are “doing the very best” they can, but added it was “frustrating” that officers have arrested some people multiple times in recent years. She wants federal prosecutors to charge more drug dealers, the district attorney to hold repeat offenders of drug dealing and violent crime “accountable” and “for judges and the courts to recognize when parole or pretrial diversion is unlikely to result in a successful outcome of that person.”
The District Attorney’s Office said that Boudin last year filed charges in 84% of narcotics cases presented when the suspect had an arrest in the previous three years — a higher share than at least the four previous years.
Breed said she does not have a position on Boudin’s recall, saying, “My goal is to work with the district attorney.”
But the June recall election will be a major test for Breed and the city’s views on policing. Political consultant Eric Jaye noted that Boudin’s critics have sought to shift blame for crime from the mayor, who oversees police, to Boudin. If the D.A. goes, Jaye said, Breed will be “100% responsible for the problem.”
Mallory Moench (she/her) is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: mallory.moench@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @mallorymoench
Mallory Moench is a San Francisco City Hall reporter. She joined The San Francisco Chronicle in 2019 to report on business and has also written about wildfires, transportation and the coronavirus pandemic.
She previously covered immigration and local news for the Albany Times Union and the Alabama state legislature for the Associated Press. Before that, she freelanced with a focus on the Yemeni diaspora while studying at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism.

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